I’m starting a monthly column of movie reviews of World War II films. These will mostly be movies made prior to the 1960s, so black and white.
They are chosen in no particular order.
It may be a little challenging for you to find these movies, but check with your library and streaming services.
I’ll include when possible, the story of a vet I’ve interviewed who would have been in the area where the film’s action takes place to give it a real-life application.
The first movie I am reviewing is Twelve O’clock High. Released in 1949, it was directed by Henry King.
So far, it is the only film I’ve found to address the psychological expense of war – what we call today ‘Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome.’ Vets I interviewed called it ‘combat fatigue’ and ‘shell-shock.’
Gregory Peck portrays the character of Brigadier General Frank Savage, a tough leader who is tasked with trying to turn around an air group operating sub-par.
When Savage arrives at the airfield at Archbury, England in 1942, the airmen in his squadron — 918th Bomb Group — have seen a lot of action and many casualties; morale is at an all-time low.
Their main problem is the American practice of precision bombing in daytime. Unprotected by fighters and visible to both antiaircraft gunners on the ground and enemy fighters in the air, the casualty toll and stress it imposes on bomber crews inflict intense emotional trauma.
Savage demands the flight crews work harder. He instills discipline and takes them back to basics to enhance their skill levels.
The men resent his approach at first and apply for transfers to other units. Later, they change their minds when the 918th is the only group to return from a dangerous mission, having hit the target and lost no aircraft.
As the 918th begins to exhibit a newfound attitude of professional and unit pride, Savage allows himself to become closer to his men and gentler in handling them.
The result is that the prospect of sending them on missions that they may not survive begins to tear him apart.
Eventually, the strain is more than he can take and he breaks down.
The film reflects the real-life story of air commander General Frank Armstrong. It was adapted from the novel by Beirne Lay, Jr. and Sy Bartlett published in 1948. They had been Hollywood screenwriters before the war. In 1943, they were Air Force officers in England.
Later, they used many of their own wartime experiences to fill the pages with action.
It is a rare movie made about the Eighth Air Force which focuses on actual episodes from the 8th’s bombing campaign against Germany.
I appreciated the extensive use of American and German combat film footage as background for air battles. The footage is woven in seamlessly so the viewer gets a realistic view of the action in the air.
The practice of precision bombing in daytime was true – it was so dangerous that the British and Germans discontinued it in 1941.
When the film was made, the Air Force was struggling to establish an identity. During World War II, it had been referred to as the Army Air Corps and later, Army Air Forces.
It had only become an independent branch of the armed forces – separate from and equal in stature to the army — in 1947, just two years prior to the film’s production.
As the film was made after the war had ended, the memory of war was still fresh in the minds of audiences, and the film was free of the need to bolster public support for the war, which was not always true with other films we’ll discuss in the future.
In my opinion the film’s goal was two-fold: show the risk of long-range bombing to defeat foreign enemies, and second, reflect the courage and dedication of bomber crews who played a major role in defeating Nazi Germany, often at a high cost emotionally.
My research stated that the Air Force was given an opportunity to study the script prior to production to spot potential concerns; they had few complaints. The film’s authenticity has made it a favorite for Air Force members.
Surprisingly for me, the actor who played an assistant to Peck’s character — Dean Jagger as Major Harvey Stovall – won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. I thought Peck did an outstanding job as well.
Rating: I give Twelve O’Clock High a ‘Two-Thumbs Up’ and highly recommend it.
Having interviewed men who served in Europe with the 8th Air Force, I more fully appreciate their service and how glad they must have been to return from each mission, having watched this film.
Robert Kiester of Henrietta, Oklahoma and later Fort Wayne, Indiana, served as a bombardier with the 322nd bomb group at Earls Colne, about 100 miles north of London.
During our interview for my book, ‘They Did It for Honor: Stories of American World War II Veterans’, he said:
“At first B-26 crews were told to fly low-level missions about 50 feet off of the ground. The enemy easily shot down several planes. We were then told to fly at a higher altitude for safety.”
God bless our vets, no matter who they are or when they served. They have kept us and millions of people around the world free.
Have you viewed ‘Twelve O’Clock High’? What did you like or dislike about it?
My husband and I toured the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler Georgia, outside of Savannah. It is a beautiful museum with many fascinating displays. Plan to visit it!
Thoughtful and informative review. Well done. I look forward to your next post.
Thanks! I’m enjoying watching these great films and putting thoughts together.